218 of 237 people found the following review helpful
Ramo's background is primarily in journalism, and it shows.
On the positive side, Ramo is a good storyteller and he knows how to keep the book lively and engaging. He does it well enough that he can even be convincing, and his not-so-subtle name dropping certainly ties in with that.
But the negative side is that the book seriously lacks rigor. Ramo spends so much time on telling his stories that he fails to clearly lay out his arguments, and it's often not even clear what his key conclusions are. And as far as presenting and responding to opposing points of view, that's not even on the radar.
Ramo also refers to all sorts of ideas from science, history, political science, etc., and this all shows that he's at least reasonably well read, but he usually touches on these ideas rather superficially, using them as analogies at best, rather than as any sort of solid evidence or arguments.
Because of all this fuzziness, I had a hard time distilling Ramo's thesis, but let me try. As I could best glean it, we live in an increasingly rapidy changing and decentralized world, with resulting profound instability which renders it impossible to reliably predict the future in any real detail. To deal with this, we need to be flexible, adaptive, collaborative, creative, structurally resilient, and willing to proactively try things (even if that means risk), in the hope that we can withstand minor shocks and continually nudge the future in a general direction which suits our preferences and broad goals, thereby hopefully avoiding major shocks and catastrophes (especially manmade ones).
If the above summary is reasonably faithful to what Ramo is saying, I do think the thesis has some merit, so we should consider it carefully. But a better book is needed to argue for the thesis more rigorously (and therefore more credibly), to flesh it out, and to spell out its implications more specifically.
Given that I'm lukewarm about the book, I can't recommend it strongly, but I do think that people who are interested in this general topic could get something out of the book (I certainly did). Just don't set your expectations too high if you decide to read it.
83 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2009
As I read the book I am reminded of all the things I have said to
people over the past 5 years, and thought about and find myself in awe that Joshua has written them down and expanded on it.
I worked in Kiev on the breakup of the USSR and then in the Gulf during
the first Gulf War and was very aware of these issues back then. I
met with members of Congress, our intelligence agencies, even a sitting US president and was dumbstruck by their insistence on maintaining the status quo, even though it signaled failure in the long run.
This is an important book, especially if it gets people talking, acting and at the very least thinking about our changing world.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2009
Einstein said that things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. We may crave simple and easy-to-comprehend ideas but the world is complex. The Age of the Unthinkable relies on Chaos Theory for its perspective on a world where old ways of thinking no longer apply.
Small changes can cause chain reactions and produce large effects. The first part of the book is a catalog of errors: the hubris of declaring victory in Iraq immediately after the invasion, attacking the wrong country after the events of 911, and the futility of trying to impose American-style democracies in places that could never accept them. After years of being right, Alan Greenspan was perplexed to the point of apology for not realizing the complexity of markets. As the saying goes: generals are always preparing to fight the last war.
According to Mr. Ramo, no major power has been able to defeat any one of the 22 insurgencies anywhere in the world since World War II. (He makes the possible exception of the British in Malaya.) And it's not as if Mr. Ramo is short of data. He is managing director of Kissinger Associates, a geostrategic advisory firm.
Clearly he is well-informed and well-connected. Not everyone can sit down with Hizb'allah leaders as he does. This is where the story starts about how small things can have a huge impact. Only 500 Hizb'allah fighters frustrated 30,000 Israeli soldiers. Even Israeli leaders are in awe of how Hizb'allah can be so effective using their web of connections.
And how did just two university students (Google founders) come to have such a huge effect on the web?
Chaos theory has been around for a few decades. Many people are familiar with a basic premise that what looks a linear or stable process, at some point becomes erratic. There's nothing like a vivid example to drive a point home. This is where we are introduced to the Danish physicist/biologist, Per Bak and the sand pile. Grains of sand falling from some pre-determined height make a cone. The cone grows uniformly. At some point, one more grain of sand destabilizes the structure, and chaos ensues.
Each day in California the ground looks to be solid. But for every day of seeming calm, the probability of major earthquake increases. Our decisions are based on what worked in the past. Despite evidence to the contrary we hang on to outdated ideas. Groups of people are more likely to be in agreement about a topic even if it is wrong, than realize destabilizing change. And it's real change that Mr. Ramo is calling for: a revolution.
Mr. Ramo's believes our thinking and behavior need a radical overhaul. Instead of seeing the world as static and controllable, we must tolerate chaos. His name for this ability is Deep Security. It's more like the idea of an immune system that can absorb and rebound from insult and injury rather than complete avoidance or elimination of threat. It's not going to provide safety for everyone. That's an impossibility in a complex world where our differences are so, well, different.
Global power is in flux. It is uncontrollable. Yet it's possible to influence outcomes by small actions. Instead of lionizing so-called success and try to replicate it, we must be patient, slow down and look carefully at what we call mistakes. Case studies should be about failure and what that has to teach us. Our institutional thinking doesn't value creativity. It operates command, compliance, and control. This needs to change.
In order to survive and prosper in our dynamic environment we must be agile, and flexible. We must give up wanting simplistic answers to complex questions. This involves a new kind of education, one that encompasses other ways of perceiving and understanding.
Our ways of seeing are culturally determined. Some Asian cultures see holistically, while in the West we focus on what is dominant. We are less aware of context. The Japanese value empathy or harmony. In America we value the exceptional. We focus attention on winners as if life were a competition. Seeing life as a competition is just one internalized perspective. As George Lakoff said, a metaphor for life could just as well be a dance. Stepping out of our cultural conditioning is perhaps harder for people for whom the current system is working (for now.) Quitting while ahead is not easy. But in order to take on new perspectives, we have to end seeing in the old way.
Deep security for Mr. Ramo is about resilience and sustainability. The notion here is preparation. He contrasts this with hysterein, a Greek word meaning to fall short or be too late. Mr. Ramo refers to the philosopher and historian, Isaiah Berlin, who wrote an essay on Tolstoy's theory of history called The Hedgehog and the Fox. The Hedgehog has one big idea, and may be impatient to come to closure. Examples of these are Hegel, Nietzsche, Plato, and Dante. On the other hand, foxes' references are much wider, they know many things. Shakespeare, Goethe, and Montaigne were foxes.
The goal is to adapt to current conditions. We need to pay attention to what those contextual conditions are right now instead of blindly moving along the path toward some goal as if the ground beneath our feet were solid. The direct problem-solving approach is often the least effective way of influencing environment. We must embrace creativity.
What we take as the truth today is superseded tomorrow. Drugs that were supposed to be a cure, turn out to be harmful. Studies that look at first to be scientific and unbiased, on further investigation, are revealed as anything but.
Paying attention to previously ignored slow forces that shape our lives and hone our instincts for indirectness and uncertainty are traits we should foster. We need to learn to be different. Simplicity is a nice idea, but the world is not a simple and predictable place.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 2, 2009
Ramo provides some interesting insights in this book. Essentially, he is arguing for a more network-centric approach to the organization of institutions. In this, I fully agree.
He relates an interesting metaphor of "the sand pile" to illustrate the complexity of reality and how our current institutions are ill equipped to deal with uncertainty.
"...Bak hypothesized that after an initial period, in which the sand piled itself into a little cone, the stack would organize itself into instability, a state in which adding just a single grain of sand could trigger a large avalanche - or nothing at all. what was radical about his idea was that it implied that these sand cones, which looked relatively stable, were in fact deeply unpredictable, that you absolutely no way of knowing what was going to happen next, that there was a mysterious relationship between input and output. You could see the way physics struggled against the very limits of language when confronted by such a subject: organized instability?"
Ramo argues our current national security institutions no longer are effective when confronted by uncertainty and complexity, in which a tiny change can have large and lasting ramifications. And that these institutions must develop away from straight planning for specific outcomes (which I think is a good idea) and become more loose and adaptable. They must seek to shape the outside environment, rather than control it. In short, our institutions have to learn to "surf the wave."
As far as this goes, I have no argument with Ramos. I have big problems with our national security institutions being controlled by planners. In my work in Iraq I have seen more damage done by planning than anything else. The utter inability of our institutions to adapt to rapidly changing environments because they have been beholden to a plan has been immeasurable.
However, my problem with Ramos is that he doesn't offer much in the way of concrete solutions. (I haven't been able to think of anything revolutionary either - but then again, I haven't written a book on the subject.) Take this quote:
"One could in fact fill an entire book with interesting experiments to be tried in coming years as we wrestle with this new order: fresh ways to boost national savings rates; international efforts to reduce sugar consumption; plans to use the web to make a catalogue of every person in the world dying of AIDS. these and ten thousand other ideas need to be offered and tried - tried free of the cynicism of "we've done that" or "it won't matter." The fact is, we can't know if what didn't work will work today; we can't predict the impact of our attempts to make change, and that is why we need to keep trying it."
That's great. And I agree. I have had to fight against "the cynicism of 'we've done that' or 'it won't matter'." But the reality is that there ARE limited resources. And once you have to work inside that constriction, THEN you give power to the planners - who are tasked with how to best "efficiently" divide those resources. Which requires a "plan," which then strangles any ability to deal with complexity.
Please! I'd like to read the book with 10,000 ideas!
82 of 105 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2009
Ramo is obviously one well connected gentleman, a point he isn't adverse to reminding his readers, and he has the mindset of rather glib, yet also well informed and paradigm hopping media culture man. He aims for a certain gravitas then relaxes into a breezy, well, not superficiality by any means, but a kind of surface gloss of his material that suggests a preference for breadth over depth.
Having said that, his best side is taking the contrary perspective and acknowledging that some basic aspects of academic and political (not to mention media) culture may be fundamentally broken and the factors we take to be solutions could actually be acting as accelerants of social breakdown or systemic catastrophe...
For example, Alan Greenspan expressed that he had discovered "a flaw" in his basic worldview, perhaps a fatal flaw... although he tantalizes us with this point, we never learn exactly what this flaw consists of or what Greenspan did with his increased understanding.
He lauds Hans J. Morgenthau as a seminal thinker in international relations and the rise of the Realist school as opposed to an Ideological framework and then expresses a belief that Morgenthau's model also might contain an essential flaw, it excludes the power of moral certitude and what could be counted as irrationality as ordering force. Witness Hezbollah, a far geekier and strangely hip organization than the western media can either comprehend or accept.
Then we take a small tour of some of the newer branches of physics... and "physics" is a concept quite dear to Ramo, how is it that these sudden shifts and instabilities lead to a new permanent order of constant change, and how do we form institutional structures to work with these processes ?
All in all, a thought provoking, diverting book, however, given the potentials of his subject, it feels as if it were written far too quickly to have the necessary rigor of a significant work.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2010
This is a disappointing book with an exciting title. As others have noted, the writing is sophomoric and sprinkled with factual errors and inconsistencies. The thinking is decidedly leftist.
There are references to art, science, psychology, and political science throughout, but no depth, limited logic, and very little that is new or convincing. The book is built around anecdotes and analogies; it reads as though this consultant put his imagination into finding a common thread through all of his diverse life experiences, whether there is a thread or not. He has no solution to the problems of our day other than to suggest that we be more nimble and operate with wider peripheral vision than we may be accustomed to. He says "we're thinking too narrowly". He also says we need to be more "resilient" and better able to take the punches and move on. We should think broadly, think about networks and decentralized solutions. This is new?
In contending that governmental policy actions can have self-defeating consequences, Ramo suggests reversing course and trying an opposite approach. He suggests fighting terrorism by building schools and hospitals in the terrorist hotbeds; muses that the U.S. may need a Department of Social Decency and a Deep Security Council, and proposes that the road to peace in the Middle East is to approach the problem with a handful of unknown, low-key, negotiators, with no expectations and no timetable; i.e., with no pressure to succeed. We are led to believe this approach is likely to lead to success. This is silly!
In a lengthy but confused discussion he lauds the owner of a failing Brazilian business for turning it into a successful "free-for-all-corporation" where "employees were turned loose to do whatever they wanted". This is a low point of the book. Unfortunately it's not the only one.
Avoid disappointment. Pass this one up.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2009
Ramo's book combines considerable scholarship with a lively writing style to outline a world of increasing complexity, mashups and juxtapositions of trends. The same innovation driven "success" that powers Hizbollah also drives Silicon Valley -- distributed power, distributed intelligence and constant adaptation. He's not agreeing with the fanatical objectives of Hizbollah but merely illustrating how it has been successful in surviving. The best firms do the same. He suggests ways to harness the double edge sword of innovation/power to individuals. For me, the book nailed down my suspicions that "stability" will never return. Alvin Toffler noted similar trends thirty years ago but Ramo is more articulate and of course more up-to-date. Definitely a good read.
Bill Yarberry Houston, Texas
38 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2009
This is the first book that truly explains WHY our world is changing and gives us the HOPE that the world can be a better place shaped by technology, innovative leaders and great ideas. It provides a whole new framework for understanding how different societies will come together to create a new and positive world order.
These days, most books and articles just talk about the `what'. Ramo give us the 'story behind the story' as he synthesizes the key people, forces, beliefs and trends that are shaping the economy, politics and religion.
For me, Ramo has a great deal of credibility. Anyone who has worked with Henry Kissinger for years brings a real-life perspective that we don't get from talking heads on television or newspaper columnists. He's the right guy to write about the unthinkable revolution taking place around us.
He tells a set of very engaging stories that bring the reader into places such as a tent with Hamas leaders to the studios of the most successful video game developer. He then uses those his travels to explain why so many things in the world order have changed dramatically - in a way that no one could have expected or contemplated.
I now know so much more and can both think and talk about all the challenges we are facing with more insight. As importantly, I have a greater sense of the solutions.
Overall, this is a very readable and valuable book. I've recommended it to my friends and am buying copies for the people I work with.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2009
Joahua Ramo makes some interesting links in this book that use logic to project events of the natural world paralleling events in our social/technological world. He uses illustrations like "the sand pile" to promote the theory that large catastrophic events can be triggered by a small event and that there is a fundamental instability and unpredictability in the world of physics and in the natural world. The work was performed by a scientist named Bak, But Ramo uses it to formulate his vision of a chaotic world.
The book is a collection of stories like the sand pile. Each of the stories is extremely interesting by themselves. The story of the ex Israeli intelligence chief Farkash and the reasons for his success when others failed was wonderful. The story of the investment banker Moritz and why he was a success was also interesting. The story of Hizb'allah and why they have been successful was equally interesting (did we ever learn anything in Vietnam about trying to apply absolute power and technology to suppress a people that were motivated and fighting for their homeland?). Where I think he falls a little short is tying all of the short stories together into a cohesive focused position that explains how to successfully deal with the complex planet conditions we face today. That said the book is absolutely a must read.
Ramo's travels in some very interesting and select circles. The people he has access to, and the information they share with him is astonishing. His willingness to share that with us is a gift. I totally enjoyed this book, and read it in a day. So will you.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
A powerful book about why old-style thinking won't work. The book's theme might be summarized in a wonderful sentence on page 9:
"We've left our future, in other words, largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that the are bewildered by the present."
The author explains in simple language just how complex systems can lead to unintended consequences. To take a few examples, the author tells us how a modern-day David will overcome a Goliath. He explains why Aharon Farkash was able to excel as head of Israeli military intelligence, in contrast to thirteen predecessors who had been fired before their terms were completed. We learn how Hizb'allah responds to attacks with resilience, not resistance, and thereby perpetuates its own existence and becomes stronger. And we learn how one venture capitalist was smart enough to invest in Google.
With these examples, Ramo explains the thesis promised in his subtitle: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It. The ultimate lesson of the book is that the only way to prepare for the future is to become more resilient and enhance our ability to deal with change.
The book falls short on its promise to suggest "what we can do about it." Success comes from sharing power, but you have to be in a position of power to make sharing possible. Ramo's story of the Brazilian company that becomes employee-driven is not unique; other companies have found success by giving power to the workers.
I was especially intrigued by the story of medical challenges in Africa. Patients would take their AIDS medication but not their TB medication. A TB outbreak shocked the epidemiologists, but the author explains why patients responded differently to these two types of medications. It's another variation of the theory that people have to "own" solutions. It's also a direction for modern American medicine, which suffers from connectedness and centralization of power. We're seeing some "insurgent" response as individuals turn to the Internet, not the medical providers, for answers.
Unlike some reviewers, I don't find this book simplistic. I'm not familiar with the details of the political and historical examples, so the author's careful approach seemed just right. I found it thought-provoking and disturbing...a must-read for anyone who does have power to make changes.